To PhD or not to PhD

PhD Choice

A PhD can certainly be a rewarding experience but it requires a big commitment in terms of time and energy, so it’s important to prepare and be clear about what you are getting into. Here are some points to consider as part of deciding whether to apply for a doctoral programme.

1. A definition of the PhD degree

The term 'PhD' stands for 'Doctor of Philosophy'. A PhD is an advanced postgraduate degree typically involving at least three or more years of independent research on an original topic. It is carried out with the support of one or more expert academic supervisors and results in a thesis that offers a significant original contribution to knowledge. On successful graduation, candidates can use the title ‘Doctor’. Ultimately, it is the highest academic degree a student can achieve.

2. Motivation for doing a PhD?

Undertaking a PhD gives you a great opportunity to develop into an independent researcher. 

For many the underlying motivation for undertaking a PhD is their passion for their subject: to learn about it and contribute to new knowledge about it. You will learn how to manage a project, work in a team with people from different nationalities and cultures and gain deep insight in your subject of choice.

3. Know your long term career plans

Think about what your career aspirations are on completion of your PhD. Some people undertake a PhD as a first step towards an academic career, while others foresee career routes outside of academia that are enhanced by the doctoral qualification. Some individuals return to academia after a period of employment to deepen the knowledge that underpins their practice through a doctorate, while others may pursue it in order to seek a change in direction.

Employers outside of academia such as consultancies, think tanks, publishing and others value not only the specialist knowledge of PhD graduates but also their maturity and transferable skills. Competencies valued by PhD employers across a wide range of industries include diligence, research abilities, focus, discipline, presentation skills and the demonstrated ability to work under pressure and to a deadline. Those with a PhD typically have better long-term prospects for faster career and pay-scale advancements.  

Knowing whether you want a career in academia or industry before commencing  a PhD will help you get the right skills and experiences from the program and make your next career transition step easier. 

4. What if I’m deliberating over an academic or non-academic career?

If you’re not sure yet what sort of career you are interested in, it’s worth exploring other options before committing to a PhD. You may find that a PhD isn’t necessary for the kind of career that you’re interested in. Alternatively, a clearer idea of your career goals will help you to work out what sort of research project would be most useful for you to do during the PhD.

5. Take advice

The best way to find out about life as a PhD candidate is to talk to them: ask about their experience of doctoral research – what they enjoyed, what they didn’t and what their tips might be.  Also, speak to your professors: ask their opinion about you applying for a PhD. They may be able to help you identify the best departments to apply to.

6. What’s involved?

A PhD typically involves:

  • Carrying out a literature review
  • Conducting original research and collecting your results
  • Writing an extended academic dissertation, offering a substantial original contribution to knowledge in your field, and submitting it as a thesis
  • Defending your thesis in an oral exam

7.  What’s the criteria for applying for a PhD position?

You are required to have an outstanding  academic record at Master’s level and have the right educational/career background within the field of the PhD subject including technical skills and research related knowledge. You should also be genuinely interested in and enthusiastic  about doing research and teaching in the specific field and demonstrate you are an independent worker.

8.  Where should I do a PhD?

PhD programmes vary from country to country and from university to university so ensure you research and understand the program before you apply.  Here at TU Delft (link to graduate school webpage) the PhD is typically four years and PhD candidates are expected to submit a thesis within 12 months of the end of the programme.

The website Findaphd offers guidance on studying a PhD in other countries around the world. https://www.findaphd.com/study-abroad/

9. Finding the right research field

Finding the right topic is not as straightforward as you may think.

  • Choose  topic that interests you. Follow your professor’s advice, but make your own choices. You will have to work on this subject for at least 3 or 4 years so you should make sure you like it.
  • Explore ideas and research articles you might have come across during your Master’s studies.
  • Make sure nobody else has already completed a similar research. Test potential ideas to see if they are possible.

10. Finding the right institution

Before making a formal application, you need to select one or two institutions where you might want to do your doctorate. Ideally, arrange to visit the university to check out the relevant lab or technical facilities, the library and accommodation.  Experiencing the environment can be quite revealing about the culture within a department. 

11. Finding the right supervisor

Your supervisor is a major influence on your PhD experience - so choose wisely. First, identify a potential supervisor specialised in the specific area you want to study. Checkout their online profiles, stated research interests and publication lists on institution and department web pages. Read up on their previous or current research. Secondly, arrange to talk to doctoral researchers they are currently supervising to find out the experience and style of the supervisor and the number of doctoral candidates are they currently supervising.  Thirdly, arrange to talk to a potential supervisor in some detail about your ideas and the opportunities available, before you apply formally. If they are not enthusiastic about your intended research, you’ll know to pursue other options.

12. How do I find a PhD position?

When securing an appropriate PhD apply for vacancies on university websites and on-line sites and hope that you find one that is a good match. In addition, read up on your preferred field of interest and identify research groups working on similar topics and reach out to connect with them to pitch your idea and enquire whether there is funding available.

13. How do I fund my PhD?

A number of options are possible:

  • Paid employment

PhD salaries are equal for all universities in the Netherlands, provided that you are paid by the university and not getting a scholarship or being paid by some external organisation. Here at TU Delft PhD candidates are typically employed full-time for a fixed period of 4 years. In addition, TU Delft offers an attractive benefits package. Salary and benefits are in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities. 

  • Scholarships and fellowships

Most universities provide scholarships and fellowship funding. TU Delft (https://www.tudelft.nl/en/education/practical-matters/scholarships/ ) has several scholarship programmes specifically designed to offer talented and motivated international students the opportunity to pursue a degree at TU Delft.

  • Working and studying part-time

Working and completing a PhD part-time is also possible. Some employers may also be willing to sponsor your completion of a PhD as part of your career development plan. You should note that previous candidates have commented that although not impossible, this route can be challenging.

  • Other small sources of funding

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences awards grants and funding for research, conference visits or periods of residence abroad. They may also contribute to the cost of organising international conferences, workshops and colloquia in the Netherlands and promote international communication and partnerships. In addition, as a member of the university staff, PhD candidates can claim travel expenses in line with the regulations regarding financial compensation for national and international travel. Please note that financial compensation for travelling and postings abroad will be paid for from the project budget.

  • Crowdfunding

For the right idea, crowdfunding is the latest idea for attaining sponsorship. 

14. Do your research

To give yourself the best chance of securing a PhD position you should:

  • start preparing early - about a year in advance
  • be proactive and prepared to do a lot of the groundwork yourself 
  • have a good idea of the field you want to research
  • have a short list of institutions/universities that offer doctoral programmes in your field
  • know something about how doctorates are funded
  • Find out about mode of application and any deadlines.

15. Need further help?

Still deliberating whether you are willing to commit to a PhD or not? Attend one of the Career Centre workshops planned throughout the year (see Blackboard) to explore your thinking further or request a one-to-one consultation session with a Career Counsellor to understand whether the PhD route is right for you.

© 2017 TU Delft

Metamenu